Thursday, September 20, 2007
S.C. to Review Release of Prisoner Who Killed Lover’s Wife
Divided C.A. Panel Mandated Parole After Three Governors Found Woman Unsuitable
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday granted review of a ruling by this district’s Court of Appeal freeing a convicted murderer who served 23 years in prison for killing her lover’s wife.
The justices unanimously agreed to decide whether Div. Seven was correct when it ruled last May, in a 2-1 decision, that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lacked evidence to support his conclusion that Sandra Davis Lawrence, 60, should remain incarcerated because “her release from prison would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society.”
Lawrence left the California Institution for Women in July after the Court of Appeal’s order became final and the state Supreme Court declined to grant a stay. Only Justices Marvin Baxter and Ming Chin voted to prevent Lawrence from leaving prison while the high court mulled her fate.
Lawrence was convicted of the 1971 murder of Rubye Williams, the wife of a Los Angeles dentist in whose office Lawrence worked and with whom she had been having an affair.
Lawrence, who originally denied involvement in the murder, later said she had broken off the relationship, but had agreed to resume it after Robert Williams suddenly told her he was going to leave his wife. She became enraged, she explained, after Williams declared just as suddenly that he had changed his mind and would remain with his wife rather than jeopardize his relationship with their children.
After killing Rubye Williams at the dental office, shooting her several times and stabbing her with a potato peeler, Lawrence fled the country and hid in the Caribbean until surrendering 11 years later.
“Thirty-six years ago I committed a horrific crime,” Lawrence told the Associated Press after her release.
“I was involved in a love triangle. I was young and emotionally disturbed.
“I will be forever regretful and remorseful,” Lawrence said. “I took her away from her family, friends and the community at large. But I’m not the person today that I was at 23.”
In prison, she had a perfect discipline record, earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, and co-founded a tutoring program for other inmates. The Board of Prison Terms, now called the Board of Parole Hearings, recommended her release several times, beginning in 1993.
Govs. Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and Schwarzenegger reversed those decisions under the authority granted by Proposition 89, a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1988. The amendment, as interpreted by the state Supreme Court, allows the governor to block the board’s decision to grant or deny parole if there is “some evidence” to support a contrary conclusion.
Recent Court of Appeal decisions have sharply conflicted as to how the “some evidence” standard is to be applied to a governor’s denial of parole. No governor has ever overturned the board’s decision to deny parole.
In the case of Lawrence, who was represented by the Post-Conviction Justice Project at USC School of Law, the governor’s decision was not supported by the required evidence because he relied “almost entirely on the nature of the commitment offense to justify Lawrence’s continued confinement,” Justice Earl Johnson Jr. wrote.
Nor can support for the governor’s decision be found in a “somewhat ambiguous statement” suggesting that Lawrence’s flight to avoid prosecution shows her to be too dangerous to be at large now, the justice said. Johnson noted that several Court of Appeal decisions have reversed parole denials for inmates who had sought to conceal evidence or avoid prosecution in some manner.
Justice Laurie Zelon concurred, but Presiding Justice Dennis Perluss dissented.
Perluss argued that “at least some evidence supports the Governor’s characterization of the commitment offense in this case as involving a shockingly vicious use of lethality and an exceptionally callous disregard for human suffering, circumstances beyond the minimum necessary to sustain Lawrence’s conviction for first degree murder.”
He further concluded that “Lawrence’s post-crime behavior and attitude toward the offense (her 11 years as a fugitive from justice and subsequent denial of involvement in the murder), cited by the Governor, are also relevant considerations in evaluating her suitability for parole.”
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company